Christine Todd Whitman

The Political Environment for Women in 2002 - September 19, 2002

Christine Todd Whitman
September 19, 2002— Ames, Iowa
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WHITMAN: It is an honor to be serving as the Mary Louise Smith Chair during the ten year anniversary of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. I had the privilege of meeting Mary Louise Smith when I was a young woman and she left a lasting impression on me about the importance of public service. Mary Louise Smith was a trailblazer for women and politics and she knocked down many of the doors through which women are now privileged to walk.

Since my time as EPA Administrator, I have been struck by the similarities between the struggle for women’s equality and our struggle to fully protect the environment.

During the 1970’s – when EPA was founded and women were fighting for full equality – there were glaring problems that needed to be fixed and no one was listening.

We had pipes discharging pollution directly into our streams and rivers, power plants churning out harmful emissions unchecked, and countless other environmental hazards right in our backyards.

Similarly, women were seeking affirmation in the workforce, where the median wage paid to women was 59 cents for every dollar paid to a man.

In government, the story was the same. In 1974, women held only 8% of state legislative seats and only 16 seats in Congress.

In the new millennium, however, we can look back at steady progress. We have raised the environmental consciousness of this country to a level far beyond where we were 30 years ago and improved – in real terms – the condition of America’s environment.

The history of women over the past three decades shows similar successes. Women are breaking through the glass ceiling, in both pay and promotions, there are now 72 women serving in the Congress, and women make up over 22% of our state legislatures.

Despite the advances we’ve made, more measured improvement on the environment than in the area of women’s representation in political leadership.

Thankfully, it’s not as bad as it was when I first started in politics, serving on the Somerset County Board of Freeholders. Not being from New Jersey, you may not know that a freeholder is a county-wide elected official. I was the only woman on the Board, and I must admit some people were a bit skeptical of my ability to do the job.

That was especially true when I was assigned the lead on the construction of our new county courthouse – a project that had been on the drawing board for years. There were those who thought the very idea of a woman overseeing a major construction job was laughable – especially some of the construction and trades union heads. But, when they realized I was the one signing the checks – and that I wasn’t about to let this project falter – they changed their tune.

At the end of the day, our new courthouse came in on time and under budget. Subsequently, I was elected by my colleagues to serve as Board chair, and I held that post until I was named by then Governor Tom Kean to head the New Jersey board of Public Utilities.

The BPU was another one of those jobs where you dealt with lots of people who weren’t used to dealing with women – the heads of sewer agencies and garbage collection companies, to name just a few.

All of this work was good preparation for my statewide campaigns. Each experience was a training ground, not just in the workings of government, but in how to get government to work.

I learned you can be tough without being obnoxious. You can be ambitious without being driven. You can be committed to your work without sacrificing your life.

Things are different today. Others are coming to understand the leadership women can provide, but there is still room for improvement. As Maureen Regan once said, “I will feel equality has arrived when we can elect to office women who are as unqualified as some of the men who are already there.”

But, how do we get more women – qualified women – in positions of political leadership? I believe there are three major ways to accomplish this goal: as mentors, as role models, and as leaders.

As mentors, women leaders need to be intentional about opening doors to capable women whenever possible.

As I have made my way in public office, I have worked to provide new opportunities to the talented women I know and who have come to my attention. I’m proud that as New Jersey’s governor, I appointed the first woman to serve as a governor’s chief of staff, the first to serve as attorney general, and the first to serve as chief justice of my state’s Supreme Court.

If you were to come to one of my daily senior staff meetings in Washington, you’d notice more women around the table than men.

My deputy administrator, my chief of staff, and my deputy chief of staff are all women – very talented women. There are a few men around the table too – I do believe in equal opportunity – but the majority are women and that’s not a coincidence.

Since 1998, I’ve worked with the Christine Todd Whitman Excellence in Public Services Series in New Jersey, which was founded to increase the number of women who serve in government positions. The series is modeled after the Richard Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series which began in Indiana in 1990.

Several other states offer the series, and it is a valuable resource for women, providing leadership training, political workshops and mentoring opportunities.

As role models, women leaders need to present themselves as examples, serving with integrity, strength, independence, and grace.

In order to convince young women like many of you here today to enter an arena where everything from your intellect to your fashion sense is analyzed you have to see what makes it all worthwhile – a vision that drives ambition, a purpose that warrants sacrifice, a career that makes a difference.

One area where I believe women can be particularly effective role models is in restoring the tenor of political debate in America. Over the past few years, we have witnessed a disturbing trend – political debate has been transformed into finger-pointing and shouting matches. A congresswoman from New Jersey, Millicent Fenwick, once said that when women had the same power as men, they would behave just like them. I like to think she was wrong.

One of the strengths of our country is our freedom to speak freely. Engaging our opponents with our opinions and arguments, instead of mud-slinging, will re-establish the quality of political discussion in this country. I believe that women are in a unique position to elevate the level of debate; I hope we take advantage of the opportunity. You can be tough without being nasty.

Finally, as leaders, we need to recognize that we possess a unique set of experiences and perspectives that differentiate us from male leaders. Women tend to be more open in our decision-making process and more willing to reach across traditional boundaries to forge solutions. As a result, we must recognize that we have the opportunity to redefine the idea of leadership.

The ability to work across ideological and political lines to produce results, make decisions based on what’s right, not necessarily what’s popular, and a willingness to serve others, those are the marks of leadership toward which we should be striving.

In closing, we all need to encourage other women in our neighborhoods, our offices and our schools to get involved, so that our perspectives and ideas are a part of the policy shaped in America.

This is an area where the Carrie Chapman Catt Center excels. Through their efforts to educate and engage women in the political process, the groundwork is continuing to be laid for when there are no longer any glass ceilings to break and there are no longer any trails to blaze.

With the November election approaching, I believe that 2002 will be a banner year for women political leaders. Traditionally, state-wide executive leadership positions, have been more difficult to break into, but already, there are at least eight women who are running as either Republican or Democrat in states ranging from Maryland to Hawaii.

Yet, regardless of what the November results produce, the participation of women in politics will only increase if we remain committed to our determination to serve as mentors, role models, and leaders.

Thank you again for having me here today, and I’d be happy to answer any questions.